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Folau cashes in as Christian group takes up fundraiser

New Zealand netball player Maria Folau has escaped sanction for Twitter comments supporting her husband Israel. A Christian group has raised over A$1.0 million in a day for his legal case against Rugby Australia © AFP / Geoff CADDICK, Andy BUCHANAN

SYDNEY, Australia, Jun 25 – A Christian group crowdfunded more than Ksh 71 million ($700,000) in a single day Tuesday for former Australian rugby star Israel Folau’s legal battle to appeal against his sacking over homophobic comments.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) stepped in to host Folau’s fundraising appeal after his original online appeal for cash was shut down over concerns it was discriminatory.

That had attracted widespread criticism, with Australian media noting he was one of the best-paid players in the world and owned a multi-million dollar property portfolio.

The ACL website said Tuesday that by 5:00 pm Sydney time (0700 GMT) it had raised Aus$1.044 million (US$300,000) of its Aus$3.0 million goal for Folau’s legal battle with former employer Rugby Australia.

The 30-year-old, a devout Christian, was sacked by the governing body last month for posting anti-gay comments on Instagram.

ACL’s managing director Martyn Iles said the group also donated Aus$100,000 of its own funds towards Folau’s cause “because it’s right and it sets an important legal precedent”.

“Many Australians want to support Izzy Folau because they feel his case is their case and they can help make a difference and show him he is not alone,” he tweeted before the appeal went live.

Folau initially set up his appeal on GoFundMe, saying he was standing up for freedom of speech and religion by fighting his sacking for posting that “hell awaits” gay people and others he considers sinners.

The appeal had raised more than Aus$700,000 before GoFundMe pulled it on Monday, saying the platform would not “tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion”.

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Folau was fired last month after a Rugby Australia tribunal found him guilty of “high-level” misconduct over his social media posts.

He has taken his case to Australia’s employment watchdog, the Fair Work Commission, asserting that he simply posted sentiments from the Bible.

The issue has revived debate about the clash between the right to freedom of religious expression and restrictions on hate speech.

Australia’s conservative government, which was re-elected in May, has vowed to enshrine religious freedom protections in law, while the ACL was vocal in opposing the introduction of gay marriage laws in 2017.

Folau’s legal team and Rugby Australia officials will meet in Sydney on Friday as part of the employment watchdog process.

He is reportedly seeking Aus$10 million in damages, including for lost sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

Folau was on a four-year contract worth more than Aus$1.0 million annually when he was sacked.

Netball New Zealand (NNZ), meanwhile, said it would not be taking action against Folau’s wife, Maria, for supporting his fundraising efforts.

Maria Folau, a New Zealand international who plies her trade with Australia’s Adelaide Thunderbirds, flagged his GoFundMe campaign on her Twitter feed.

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In a brief statement, NNZ said “Maria Folau has not breached NNZ policy”.

It added: “We acknowledge that people have differing views and beliefs. It is important those opinions and views are expressed in constructive and respectful ways.

Liz Ellis, a former Australian captain, had called for netball authorities to send a strong message over the Folau saga.

“There is no room for homophobia in our game,” she tweeted late Sunday. “Anyone who is seen to support or endorse homophobia is not welcome.

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